No one is more surprised in my growing interest in “zero waste” than me. Since my husband and I moved in together, it’s been a running joke that I barely know how to recycle–and I’m the one who grew up in eco-conscious Portland, Oregon. In fact, the only reason I stumbled on Bea Johnson’s book, Zero Waste Home, is because I was planning to create a lot more waste (in the form of disposable diapers), and garbage is only picked up every other week in our fair city.
While surfing the Internet for ways to reduce our household garbage, I suddenly remembered reading about Johnson in Martha Stewart Living. She and her family went from a 3,000-square-foot home–and the gallons of weekly waste the typical American family generates–to a 1,475-square-foot house, jettisoning 80% of their belongings in the process. Their yearly garbage, for a family of four (two adults and two young sons), is now just one quart. To put this in context, Duke University’s Center for Sustainability and Commerce has determined that the average person generates 4.3 pounds of waste per day, 1.6 pounds more than in 1960.
So, in a fit of virtuous mania, I walked to Powell’s Books for Home and Garden (while six months pregnant) and picked up a copy of Zero Waste Home. As part of this noble impulse, I also picked up a reusable glass water bottle, which I promptly lost the first time I used it. Whoops.
Reading the book was an eye-opening and occasionally cringe-inducing experience. As you can imagine, to get down to a quart of garbage a year, you’ve got to be pretty hardcore, and there were many things Johnson described that I will probably never do–unravel silk cloth for dental floss, make things out of dryer lint, pee on plants. I don’t think so.
However, I realized there were several steps I could immediately take to reduce our waste that were relatively painless, and once I wrapped my mind around a few others, they were actually fun! I’m not going to completely eliminate plastic and packaging from our lives right now (for one thing, I haven’t yet found a grocery store that will let me shop the meat and deli counters with my own glass jars), but I’ve cut down on them substantially by making the following zero waste changes:
1. Finally remembered to shop with cloth bags.
You don’t live in Portland, Oregon without collecting a fair number of reusable shopping bags–I just never remembered to put them in the car. We-e-ell, frankly, that was only part of the problem: I also felt self-conscious about using them, and I was worried about irritating the checkers at my grocery store. I eased my mind by first asking them what kinds of bags are easiest for them to use, and going forward accordingly. (Best: the structured bags that are shaped like traditional paper bags. Worst: the silk bags that can be crammed into a tiny pouch.)
2. Took it one step further with cloth produce and bulk bags.
I love to cook, so eliminating plastic produce and bulk bags has made a huge difference for me. I now shop with a variety of mesh bags I purchased at my grocery store, as well as bags from Hands on Hemp. This was another mental hurdle for me: the first couple of times I used them, I felt super self-conscious! However, I’ve never had a checker even give me a second look–this is Portland, after all.
3. Eliminated paper towels and paper napkins (mostly).
This was a step I thought would be really difficult, but now that I’ve gone without for a couple of months, I hardly miss them! In place of paper towels, I use microfiber cloths to clean glass and other surfaces, and kitchen towels to wipe up spills and dry off fruits and vegetables. Yes, when I cook bacon it’s a little greasier (I can’t bring myself to use cloth for that), but . . . bacon grease is delicious!
Instead of paper napkins, I’ve brought out my stash of cloth napkins to use every day, and I cut up a bunch of cute fabric remnants I had on hand to make 50+ cocktail napkins for a recent party. (I used my rotary cutter with a wavy-edged blade to reduce ravelling, since I wasn’t about to hem 50+ napkins. My crazy only goes so far.)
4. Started taking advantage of the bulk bins, hardcore.
I had already dabbled in the bulk bins, particularly at my local WinCo, which has an amazing selection. However, once I started gathering my glass jars (more on that, below), I started realizing I could get the majority of my dry goods in bulk: everything from flour and baking soda to pasta, baking chocolate, and more. At my local co-op, I can even buy things like olive oil, honey, and maple syrup from the bulk section.
NOTE: One of the best parts of buying from the bulk section, I’ve discovered, is that you don’t have to buy in bulk! No more buying an entire (expensive) bag of coconut flour for that one recipe for that one paleo friend so that I can use a cup of it and find the rest infested with bugs six months later: I can buy just what I need. There’s no incentive to buy the extra-large bag of macaroni noodles to save 2 cents a pound!
5. Looked into making even more food from scratch.
If you’ve read this blog or checked out my Twitter account at all, you know I love to cook. But amazingly, I never really thought about making some of the processed foods we eat every day. I’ve now experimented with making my own Hershey’s Syrup, refried beans, and more, and found that the homemade versions are much better, anyway (my true measure of worth).
6. Rounded up dozens of glass jars and bottles.
I did this for two reasons: one, I’m tired of battling ants, and two, because I needed containers for bulk items. However, there was a third advantage: my cupboards look much cooler with (almost) everything in glass jars!
In addition, the co-op I frequent allows customers to bring their own glass jars to shop the bulk section. I can weigh my jars there, mark the tare on them (so I don’t pay for the weight of the jar in addition to my goods), and fill them up with peanut butter, salsa, etc. I just wish they had a deli and meat counter!
7. Cut my own (package-free) soap.
I’ve dabbled in making soap, and even made a batch from scratch! However, I quickly realized that even though the resulting soap was package free, everything I needed to buy to make the soap, like oils and lye, came in plastic containers. Oops. My co-op has long bars of soap in a wide range of scents and colors. I just chop off the number (and size) of bars I need and pop them in a cloth bag, easy!
8. Switched to bulk shampoo and conditioner.
This was also simple for me, but I was a little worried about my husband, as he has extremely curly hair, and conditioner is very serious business. I finally popped this cherry last week, filling several half-pint glass jars with various options for us to test out. As someone who usually uses Suave (I am cheap), these new products feel downright luxurious, but my husband is (sensibly) worried about our nine-year-old handling glass in the shower, so I’m going to transfer everything to some plastic squirt bottles I already had on hand.
9. Joined my local co-op.
I’ve already mentioned it several times, but the People’s Co-op has been a real find for me. They support local farms, they’re committed to ethical sourcing of food, and they have a great bulk section. I wish their cheese section was more varied and that they sold meat, but the weekly farmer’s market and free yoga classes are pretty cool, too.
10. Began planning menus that centered around what I already have on hand.
You’d think this would be a no-brainer! I thought I was pretty thrifty and well organized before, but I would blithely plan menus from week to week according to whatever whim came over me–and without actually checking the fridge. This led to me throwing away all kinds of things at the end of the month: forgotten vegetables, tons of leftovers, you name it. Now I make it a game, Googling strings of items to find interesting recipes, and freezing things I don’t think I’ll use right away.
11. Started using cloth diapers.
And after all that, I ended up using cloth diapers anyway! After all my research and care, the garbage bags full of dirty diapers grossed me out. I still use disposables at night, but we’ve cut down to one or two a day, instead of eight to ten.
Adopting the zero waste philosophy has been a slow process, and I’m hoping to implement more strategies as we go along: there are tons of excellent secondhand and thrift stores here in Portland, for example. So . . . the crazy continues.
Does anyone else have zero waste on the brain? Do you have any tips to share? Post them below!